in eGovernment, Open Data, Open Government, Open Source, West Africa

Preparing for a Data-Driven Revolution in Liberia

George Weah during the presidential inauguration ceremony

(Originally published in the Columbia/SIPA Journal of International Affairs)

A coastal, West African country, Liberia was once infamous for civil war, so-called “blood diamonds,” and public health crises like the recent Ebola humanitarian crisis. But, soon, Liberia will be known more for its data transparency, management, and sharing than any of its past ills.

Since 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa and a Nobel laureate, has presided over the restoration of constitutional government and the consolidation of a lasting peace. Soon after her election, she started in on her promise of transforming the country into a more open nation, accountable to its people. To this end, the Liberian Anti-Corruption Act and the Freedom of Information Act were introduced. New public institutions were established, such as the General Auditing Commission (GAC), to ensure that Government accounts for public resources, and the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), to prevent corruption and promote good governance. In 2008, the Government of Liberia joined the Extractive Industries and Transparency Initiative (EITI), bringing transparency over payments and revenues procedures to the mining, timber, agriculture, and nascent oil and gas sectors.

In September 2011, Liberia joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP), demonstrating a strong commitment to fostering an open and peaceful society through the establishment of mechanisms to ensure good governance, transparency, and citizen engagement. The first OGP action plan emphasized improving citizens’ access to information, increasing citizen participation in public life, enforcing accountability and integrity among public officials, and improving the information and communication technology (ICT) environment (including access to eGovernment services). Some innovative initiatives came from OGP action plans, such as the Open Budget Initiative, to access national budget details, and the eProcurement Platform, to track public contracts.

Nevertheless, much work remains. Many OGP commitments remain unimplemented, oftentimes due to a lack of resources. The latest Liberia Progress Report shows that, of the 20 commitments from the original action plan, only two have been completed, seven will be completed if sufficient resources are assigned, eight have had difficulties gaining traction, and three were never started.

Politically, the country’s fragile democracy has been tested, as allegations of electoral fraud postponed the country’s second round presidential elections; however, the second round was successfully held on December 26, 2017, and George Weah took office on January 22, 2018. Economically, Liberia registered an average annual growth rate of 0 percent from 2014 to 2016, although growth seems to be picking up again: the economy grew by 2.6 percent in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund.

To stimulate the economy, boost trust in government, and build greater accountability, the Government of Liberia, with the support of development partners such as the World Bank and USAID, is investing heavily in ICT infrastructure and data literacy skills training (among other sectors) to address the country’s low employment rate, meager economic growth, and need for greater accountability. A key complement to such interventions is the embrace of an open data initiative.

What is an Open Data Initiative?

Open data initiatives are government programs to make government data open by default. This includes a number of activities:

  • Legal/regulatory reform to allow for data disclosure;
  • Capacity building and training of government officials;
  • ICT infrastructure;
  • Digitization and dissemination of data in open format; and
  • Promotion of the use and re-use of government data.

Key Challenges

In collaboration with the World Bank, the Government of Liberia’s Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP), Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MoPT), Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism (MICAT), and Independent Information Commission (IIC), recently undertook an Open Data Readiness Assessment (ODRA) to identify the binding constraints on improved data disclosure, management, and use. While not yet finalized, this multi-stakeholder initiative—which included a number of non-state actors, including members of Liberia’s civil society community, academia, and private sector—revealed several key challenges that need to be overcome in moving forward on an open data agenda.

Liberia has the policies needed to improve government data disclosure, management, and use (not to mention the right to access information); however, implementation is a major challenge. Indeed, there are very few high-level ICT champions within Government pushing to make government data more accessible and prioritizing the openness agenda. There is also limited collaboration among government agencies in creating interoperable data flows or facilitating information exchange using open standards, as has been proposed in Liberia’s National eGovernment Web Development Strategy. Indeed, public bodies generally use their own methods: government data collection is fragmented and management siloed, with very little government data making its way online (even less, in machine-readable format).

Impediments to Greater Data Transparency and Use in Liberia

Some of the main impediments to greater government data transparency and use include:

  • Failure to implement existing data disclosure rules and policies;
  • Lack of resources dedicated to fund open data measures;
  • Low capacity of and communication between ministries and agencies;
  • Poor internet penetration and access;
  • Low levels of demand; and
  • Hesitancy to disclose data.

To develop an open data ecosystem, as the Government of Liberia has committed itself to, national policies need to be better implemented; additionally, critical funding is needed. Most public institutions have difficulties complying with existing rules and regulations because civil servants have not been properly trained and the existing performance structure does not create the incentive for them to communicate, share, and use data. Also, as is the case in many countries, within the Government there is still a pervasive culture of guarding information; this requires sensitization efforts—as well as clear political leadership from higher authorities—around the proactive disclosure of public information. A strong legal framework also has to be enforced to increase trust in public institutions and provide the investment environment for the private sector to thrive– a key to ensuring economic growth.

Transforming Liberian Society

Liberia’s development can and should be based on a shared and open knowledge-based society, with widely available ICT to empower citizens and the private sector. Open Data initiatives are able to move forward on concrete actions to support data management inside institutions, increase data interoperability between public bodies, support development of eServices based on released datasets, empower citizens with better access to information, and facilitate collaboration between government institutions. Such an initiative in Liberia could include some of the following:

Liberia should identify ICT champions close to the center of government and develop an inter-ministerial working group to promote greater coordination and collaboration among the government’s top data producers and users. Such a Working Group could support the expansion of ICT infrastructure in the country based on the current work of CSquared, Google’s Africa broadband infrastructure company, which is currently installing a fiber optic backbone in Greater Monrovia. This could be the first step of a national, high-speed Internet system to address last mile challenges, ensuring universal digital access to information, government eServices, and online applications within the country, as well as for the Liberian diaspora. The Group could also support the use of ICTs—as well as their analogue complements—to emphasize the inclusion of women, marginalized peoples, and rural areas, as well as boost the development of digital services by local entrepreneurs such as Cook Shop, a hand-delivered food platform serving Monrovia.

Liberia should have greater sovereignty over its data, eServices, and infrastructure. A local data center, including backup facilities, could serve the needs of all government departments, ensure critical ICT infrastructure is well protected, and provide effective response mechanisms to deal with issues of cyber security. To date, most of the public websites and services are hosted in Europe or USA where Liberian’s data are regulated by local laws. The Government could also host a Developer Resource Center to support all public institutions to help ministries, agencies, and commissions without in-house technical resources to manage their data, host their websites, and more generally setup a centralized government platform to host public services and facilitate communication inside the Government. Most critically, such an initiative could provide direct training and capacity building to boost the data management and ICT skills of civil servants within the Government.

Centralized Government Platform

A centralized government platform could provide secure infrastructure to conduct transactions and support operations inside and outside the Government. It would:

  • Allow public entities to host and maintain websites and related eServices;
  • Be a flexible, open source platform;
  • Provide responsive web template design to ensure consistent templates across devices;
  • Make content accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, varied ICT skills, or who do not speak English; and
  • Provide internal communications tools for civil servants.

The Government should boost its online presence with the development of an Open Data portal, sectoral data dashboards with clean and anonymized datasets, and eServices. As a quick win, the Government could first identify a list of priority datasets—be they in paper or digital format—to be digitized (if needed) and published as open data on existing government website. Building adapted eServices that can reach all beneficiaries—not just the literate, connected individuals in Monrovia—is challenging and requires the use of simple web technologies, as well as analog solutions. One promising example of this can be found in nearby Mali, where the USAID-funded Cybertigi project reached remote population with easy-to-use technology.

Rural One-Stop-Shop Kiosk

Rural one-stop-shop kiosks, such as those found in rural Mali, could provide and centralize information and administrative services for hard-to-reach citizens in a cost-effective way. Potential services to provide could include:

  • Links to passport service requests;
  • Access to legal advice on public laws;
  • Use of word processors to help with job applications and the filling out of other documents;
  • Consultation of cached Wikipedia pages;
  • Photocopying of documents;
  • Taking and printing of digital passport pictures;
  • Consultation of administrative forms, text of laws, etc.; and
  • Access to public datasets.

The Government could develop the local innovation technology community and, more generally, boost demand for government data. This could include the development of a tech incubator to build eServices and other applications using open government data. It could also involve sponsoring trainings, competitions, and hackathons to boost demand for and build skills around open data, data literacy, and data management.

Liberia is poised for a data-driven revolution. We look forward to seeing the country take off.

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